When a death in the family is imminent, potential beneficiaries often want to know what they will receive and when. It is a natural part of wanting to plan one’s own finances and, when other family relationships are strained, to make sure others are not taking advantage of an ill family member. However, speaking to loved ones about their estate planning or finances can feel intrusive and embarrassing. Unfortunately, having a conversation is the only way to get answers because, as it happens, you are not automatically entitled to anything.
Before someone is actually deceased, a Will is not an effective document. A trust, on the other hand, owns property in the present, but is in the hands of the trustee. In both cases, the living estate planner may make any changes during life they want. During this time, no one, except a trustee, is entitled to a copy or any other information about the provisions of the documents. Indeed, estate planners often choose to keep this information secret for a variety of reason, including preventing a temptation to persuade them, keeping a disinheritance private, or knowing that the plan is still somewhat tentative. As a result, it is not unusual not to have a copy or see a copy of the estate plan. However, it is useful to find out whether an estate plan was created or who the attorney was. After death, you are entitled to notice of the probate or trust administration and a copy of the will or trust if you would have been an heir at law.
Upon seeing the documents, the distribution called for determines how remaining assets will be distributed. However, distributions are made to beneficiaries only after all debts and administration expenses have been paid. Particularly in situations where the deceased person was afflicted with long-term illness, debts may exceed assets available for distribution. Furthermore, some people accumulate large debts later in life that they do not disclose to other family members. Although it is sometimes possible to work with creditors to settle or resolve claims against the deceased person’s assets, there is no guarantee of inheritance.
When assets for distribution remain, the beneficiaries named in the will or trust will receive the inheritance, absent certain circumstances. First, the will or trust must be valid. If there is reason to believe that fraud, undue influence, or capacity is concerned, then then documents may be challenged in court. However, challenging such documents can be an uphill battle. Additionally, surviving spouses and minor children are entitled to certain benefits from the estate for a limited period of time. Surviving spouses are, of course, entitled to their community share of the assets.
In short, even though the curiosity to know what an inheritance will be or how much to expect, it is often impossible to know whether a person is entitled to anything before the death occurs and administration has begun. Even surviving spouses and children may have only limited claims on the estate’s assets!
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